Companies Must Prioritize Forest Protection over Tree Planting | Opinion

Imagine you find your bathtub overflowing. Would you pull the plug, but leave the tap running at full blast? Of course not. The natural response would be to turn off the tap before pulling the plug. Now keep this analogy in mind as we consider natural solutions to climate change, which have the potential to provide around a third of the solution to climate change by 2030.

Broadly speaking, there are two categories of actions we need to take to leverage nature's ability to help us combat climate change.

The first are those that reduce the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. For example, when we reduce deforestation, we prevent huge amounts of emissions from being released in the atmosphere.

The second are actions that remove additional carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. For example, when we plant trees, we are creating new sinks that remove more carbon.

Both sets of action are important and we're at a point in the climate crisis when we need to use every tool available. However, one action is more urgent. Just as you would reach for the tap first if a bathtub is overflowing, the world must first focus on reducing emissions. This means urgently decarbonizing the economy, including the energy, industry, transportation and other sectors.

In terms of nature-based solutions, this means we need to urgently reverse deforestation—and tropical deforestation in particular.

There is no plausible pathway to global net-zero that does not involve protecting nature. Deforestation currently contributes 10-15 percent of global emissions, more than the entire EU; or, if deforestation were a country, it would be the third largest emitter. Immediate action to reduce these emissions must be prioritized. It's a question of timing. When forests are destroyed, huge amounts of carbon are released into the atmosphere very quickly and the forests' ability to absorb carbon is lost.

On the other hand, when we allow forests to regrow, or when we plant new trees, it's a relatively slow process. In most parts of the world, it can take multiple decades before these actions achieve their full removal and storage potential. We can't wait that long. The next decade is critical for reducing the rate of climate change, and with it the damages that the warming climate inflicts on people around the world.

It is a climate imperative that we turn the tide on deforestation. And this doesn't speak to the range of other benefits that protecting forests provides for both local communities and biodiversity.

What does this mean for companies?

There are a range of actions that companies can take today to support nature-based climate action. But when it comes to deciding between reductions and removals, the choices that companies make, especially in the near term, can significantly increase the likelihood of delivering better and faster outcomes for the climate.

It's easy to see why some companies gravitate toward tree planting. We have all been taught the values of tree planting from an early age, and it's easy to tell compelling stories about these efforts. Tree planting—as long as it's the right trees in the right places—isn't bad. In fact, it's necessary. But corporate support for protecting tropical forests has the potential to make a much bigger and fastest impact.

Why? Protecting nature costs money in a world where a hectare of forest is worth more as a soy farm or grazing pasture. The scale of funding needed is far beyond what can realistically be achieved with government-to-government aid flows or conservation funding alone; private sector capital has to be mobilized alongside government action.

A colorful autumn along the Santa Ynez River in Solvang, California. George Rose/Getty Images

The window of time to protect the world's forests is closing; once natural forests are destroyed, they are often gone forever.

For companies, the priority should shift from reductions to removals only when the world has begun to meaningfully reduce emissions rates. Prioritizing efforts to protect existing forests is also important because removals are often done via fast-growing monocultures—which don't support the diverse ecosystems that natural forests do and can actually have negative impacts on the environment and biodiversity.

How can companies support efforts to protect tropical forests?

By leveraging their growing demand for high-quality carbon credits to support government-led programs to prevent deforestation through the purchase of credits generated by those programs. Protecting nature should be the highest priority for limited corporate compensation funds.

Simply put, support for jurisdictional carbon credits is one of the highest-impact actions companies can take, providing critical finance necessary to protect the world's forests in the future.

Large-scale programs directly address quality issues and limitations experienced in the past with forest-based credits. By working across entire regions, or "jurisdictions," and by leveraging the tools available only to governments, as well as mobilizing the private sector, a jurisdictional approach will help ensure that corporate funding leads to emissions reductions that are real and long-lasting.

Again, we need to both reduce and remove emissions. Or, to use the analogy we started with: turn off the tap and pull the plug. But the two things are not the same, and we must not equate them.

In the world of nature-based solutions, preventing deforestation will have the biggest near-term impact on slowing the rate of global warming. And jurisdictional carbon credits are one of the best tools at our disposal to achieve this.

Eron Bloomgarden is executive director of Emergent.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.